Ex Machina: Cerebral Sci-Fi

At last, a science-fiction film that’s more about ideas than explosive visual effects. Alex Garland, the novelist-turned-screenwriter of such films as 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Never Let Me Go makes his directorial debut with this stylish mood piece, set in the very near future. Domhnall Gleeson plays a bright code-writer at a major Internet firm who wins an office pool. The coveted prize: a week’s getaway at his boss’ private compound, nestled in a remote location that’s reachable only by helicopter.

The Big Cheese is played by an almost-unrecognizable Oscar Isaac, who adds another exceptional performance to his growing résumé. His extreme physical appearance—bald head, bushy beard, buff but stocky body—reflects the man he’s playing, a world-famous mogul who does as he pleases, whether it’s pummeling a boxing bag or passing out dead drunk at night. He welcomes wide-eyed Gleeson to his private domain—where you can hear a pin drop—and while he’s superficially hospitable, he enjoys toying with the naïve visitor. Then he reveals the biggest secret in his arsenal: his latest invention, an artificial intelligence figure cloaked in the skin of a beautiful woman (Alicia Vikander). She’s half droid, half goddess.

Alicia Vikander-Ex Machina

Alicia Vikander (Photo Courtesy of A24 )

Isaac has brought Gleeson there to see how the young man responds to his creation—and how she reacts to him.

The story unfolds in this isolated world (created by Garland, production designer Mark Digby and cinematographer Rob Hardy) and it is fascinating. Tension builds from one scene to the next, and it’s challenging to figure out what’s in store for Gleeson, and for us. My only caveat is that the structure of Ex Machina telegraphs that something is going to go terribly wrong; it’s not a question of if, but when and how. Knowing this undercuts the story to some degree, and makes the final act less compelling than the set-up.

Still, Ex Machina has much to offer, including fine performances, a great look, and a tangible air of unease. I’ll take this over Transformers any day.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024